ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
The state of Illinois is embroiled in yet another political scandal. This one involves the University of Illinois. There are allegations that students with political clout were admitted to the school over other more qualified applicants.
NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER: When he graduated from high school three years ago, William Jones thought he had done what he had to do to get into the University of Illinois that fall.
Mr. WILLIAM JONES: I was mostly an A student, A with a couple of Bs. I got a 29 on my ACT. So when I originally applied to U of I, I guess I cockily thought I was a shoo-in, but apparently not.
SCHAPER: Jones scored high enough to get on Illinois' waiting list before ultimately being denied. Plan B was to go to the University of Iowa, where he paid out-of-state tuition.
Mr. JONES: It's almost double the cost.
SCHAPER: Jones was able to transfer to Illinois after two years. Standing outside a summer class he's taking at the U of I's Chicago campus, he says his struggle on the waitlist and difficulty transferring didn't bother him at all, until he saw recent newspaper stories revealing that the University of Illinois keeps a so-called clout list, and that prospective students with powerful sponsors were often admitted over more qualified applicants.
Mr. JONES: The fact that I was on this waiting list of short people makes me feel like I was really screwed, actually. It means that I was this close and, you know, I was just on the border of getting in and I didn't. And I got a feeling that if that clout list didn't exist, I probably would've gotten into U of I originally.
SCHAPER: University of Illinois officials now acknowledge they actually created a special classification to track the applications of students with clout, called Category I. The university's former associate director of admissions, Abel Montoya, testified Monday before a special state commission investigating the scandal. And he says his decisions to deny admission to certain unqualified Category I applicants were sometimes overturned.
Mr. ABEL MONTOYA (Former Associate Director of Admissions, University of Illinois): I asked why in the world are we admitting this kid that's so low? And my director told me.
SCHAPER: Montoya explained how the Category I system worked. Each office on the campus that deals with influential people, whether it be donors, alumni or politicians, had a designated liaison who would let him know whenever a powerful someone would inquire about a particular applicant. He says he would then mark that applicant's file as Category I, and he made sure the file's label reflected that applicant's clout too.
Mr. MONTOYA: A red stripe would go through the middle so it'd stand out from other applications.
SCHAPER: There may have been more than 150 red-striped applications a year, out of more than 25,000 university applications overall. And in the highly competitive college admissions game, that red stripe was often the extra little push a borderline student may have needed to get admitted.
The University of Illinois' top lobbyist Richard Schoell testified he often inquired about the status of certain applicants on behalf of lawmakers and other public officials. And he admits occasionally noting just how important some of those officials were within state government. But Schoell denies those public officials threatened to withhold funding from the university if a particular student didn't get in. And he denies trying to get unqualified students admitted.
Mr. RICHARD SCHOELL (Lobbyist, University of Illinois): Well, I never said to anybody, you must take this kid. But I do agree, as I look back, the appearance of that or just the role I have could have compromised the situation.
SCHAPER: A University of Illinois spokesman says the school is cooperating with the investigation. Federal authorities are looking into what role former Governor Rod Blagojevich and top fundraiser Tony Rezko may have had in clouting students into the U of I.
And while Illinois is not alone in having the rich and powerful trying to influence public university admissions, experts say the scale to which it appears to be done in Illinois puts the state in a class by itself. It remains unclear if the University of Illinois' clout list broke any state laws or school policies. The commission will continue its investigation into August, when it is due to report its findings to the governor.
Regardless of the outcome, the once denied 21-year-old William Jones, who will be a senior at the U of I in the fall, says he is getting something out of it.
Mr. JONES: I'm starting to learn it's more about who you know. It's not about how hard you work. It's not about necessarily how intelligent you are. It's about who you know, the connections you have.
SCHAPER: Call it a free lesson in Illinois politics 101.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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